People living in tents next to All Saints’ Anglican Church in Winnipeg, diocese of Rupert’s Land, are being asked to leave after a decision made “with some sadness” by the church’s vestry, says the Rev. Brent Neumann.
Neumann, the priest at All Saints’, says the people living on the property will not be asked to return after vacating the site today, May 30, as part of an agreement to leave the property 48 hours before a wedding scheduled to take place at the church on Saturday, June 2.
The saga of the “tent city” has been ongoing for the past month.
Up to 40 people, who are mostly homeless, have been living in tents and boxes and under tarps next to the church ever since the weather became warm about four weeks ago. While the church had experienced the occasional person sleeping on the lawn in the past, the encampment is a new occurrence, Neumann says.
As for what caused this new development, Neumann says multiple factors are at play, from mental health and addiction issues—the city has seen “a huge spike” in crystal meth usage—to the provincial government’s “austerity” measures, and its cuts to social services “across the board.”
“In the social services industry, a lot of the work is about stabilization of people who function on a level of subsistence…when you kick one prong out underneath, you throw them into a crisis, and it takes a much larger effort to stabilize them again.”
Rob Altemeyer, NDP MLA for the area, believes the root cause to be a lack of low-income housing. Altemeyer says low-income and social housing units are lost every month to fire, building renovations and condo conversions, and expiring federal funding subsidies, which he says the Conservative provincial government is not “stepping up to maintain.”
“This government has not built a single unit of social housing in the two years since they took office,” he claims.
In an emailed statement, Manitoba’s Families Minister Scott Fielding wrote that “housing is a key factor to address poverty,” and that “finding long-term housing remains a priority.”
Fielding said he recently met with Neumann to “discuss solutions” and make sure the people camping outside the church were aware of what government services might be available for them. He also wrote that the Manitoba government is working with the federal government to implement its National Housing Strategy provincially, and that it is “in the process of developing a provincial housing strategy and a poverty strategy that includes consultation with people who have lived homelessness and poverty to share their experiences and suggested solutions.”
Fielding also pointed to several agencies, including shelters, that receive provincial funding.
However, some people living in the tent community have said they don’t feel safe in the city’s shelters, Neumann says.
“This is the closest unfortunate individuals can get to [where] there’s a safe, secure environment of community,” Beverly Burkard points out. Burkard is the executive director of Agape Table, a non-profit organization that serves breakfast to an average of 350 people a day, and dispenses food, clothing and hygiene items. Agape Table has operated out of All Saints’ former parish hall for the past 30 years. It will be relocating to a new location in June.
Burkard, who previously ran a housing facility and is “very familiar with the shelter environment,” notes that someone seeking a bed for the night may have to stand in line as early as 7 p.m., and still may not get in. One shelter offers only emergency mats for men, and another accepts women, but also provides space to drug users, whose behaviour can be unpredictable. Shelters also require everyone to leave by morning.
Setting up an encampment, she says, means “you set down roots, you have all your personal items…you have community and probably some sense of security and safety by being with other folks who are equally marginalized.”
Safety has become a greater concern with the backdrop of the opioid crisis and rising crystal meth use, which has “added to the stress and pressure of people who don’t feel safe in the first place,” says Altemeyer. “They formed that tent city…so they could have safety in numbers.”
The church, Neumann says, has been caught in the tension between caring for others and caring for their own.
“We’re trying to walk a place of, how do we welcome our neighbours, while at the same time, how do we work as a parish on the needs of the congregation?” says Neumann.
The church has opened its doors for every service and invited people to come in for coffee and join the worship. However, there have been issues with property damage.
“We have issues of vandalism, and people using the doorways as outdoor toilets, and we’ve got people stripping bikes in our garden, and we’ve got garbage and…people passed out,” says Neumann.
Despite the church’s decision to ask people to leave the property, Neumann expects some will still set up camp on the lawn overnight.
“We’re not going to be able to stop them from coming onto the property. We don’t have the resources to police that,” he says. In the morning, anyone camping on the property will be asked to move, he says.
The local police are “more than willing to help” move people along, he says, but for the church, this will be its last resort.
“There are many other ways to deal with the problem, and we’re trying to be as gentle and compassionate as we can in this,” Neumann says.
All Saints’ plans to tear down its old parish hall, and in its place—and on the very green space where the tent city sat—they hope to build a mixed-use apartment building of 10 to 12 storeys that will provide low-income housing, in partnership with the University of Winnipeg’s Community Redevelopment Corporation.
Until then, there are no easy answers for All Saints’.
“I had a woman out there who I would say was probably 70. She was living in a box. You could tell she was really trying to live a life that she could, in a way that worked for her,” Neumann recalls. “She says, ‘You got a rake or a hose? I’d really like to clean up around here because they’ve messed things up for you so much.’ ”
Neumann’s voice trails off, but he adds, “All you can do is ache.”
The whole ordeal has set off plenty of local media coverage.
“I think if we can say anything that we’ve done, we’ve shone a very big light on how complex and difficult this problem is, and there is no quick solution. We are asking everybody to step up and say, ‘How do we help?’ ”
Across the street from All Saints’ are Manitoba’s provincial legislature grounds. The proximity prompts Neumann to joke: “It’s very hard for the people who are up in the legislature to look back here and say, ‘We don’t see a problem.’
“Have you looked out the back door recently?”
Altemeyer says he commends All Saints’ congregation and leadership team. “This is not an easy situation,” he says, adding that “it’s not like there’s going to be 40 affordable low-income housing units built” after the tent city is dismantled. “I actually think it would be entirely appropriate, even more appropriate, for the tent city to end up on the lawn of the legislature. This is where the decisions are being made that are leading people to end up in a tent city.”